Monday, June 9, 2014

T.S.Eliot, cultural, social criticism and why poets should stick to poetry

The history of poetry is littered with defences which make wild claims for the power of an abstraction called Poetry. I’ve traced this though numerous previous posts.  One of the great Ironies is that the epitome of the modern public poet, T.S.Eliot, is a perfect example of why the idea that writing poetry gives the writer some kind of privileged status, is, to put it politely, nonsense.

T.S. Eliot’s Intellectual Development (1972) by  James Margolis is a study of an intelligent, articulate man, with a refined skill in the arrangement of words, wanting to do more than just arrange words.  Eliot’s career highlights the dilemma; intelligent and articulate he may have been, deeply committed, after 1928 to the issue of Christian Witness, he most certainly way: but Eliot, by his own admission, was not an expert in Theology, or Economics, or Education. And the fact he wrote some of the most memorable poetry of the twentieth century could not underwrite his opinions on anything other than poetry. 
In his preface Margolis points out:
Though he had many penetrating observations on these topics [education, politics, religion, literature], he was not a systematic thinker with comprehensive theories. His remarks –and especially those on literature –are often more valuable for the light they cast on Eliot’s own thinking as the time then for the contribution they make to the fields they concern. (pxv)

Margolis quotes a letter from June 1934 from Eliot to Paul Elmer More: ”I am not a systematic thinker, if indeed I am a thinker at all. I depend upon intuitions and perceptions: an although I may have some skill in the barren game of controversy: [I] have little capacity for sustained, exact and closely knit argument and reasoning.” (qtd Margolis, 1976, p.xv)

In 1934 Eliot wrote: “At the present time, I am not very much interested in the only subject which I am supposed to be qualified to write about: that is, one kind of literary criticism. I am not very much interested in literature, except dramatic literature: and I am largely interested in subjects which I do not yet know very much about: theology, politics, economics and education.” (qtd Margolis, 19176, p177)

If Eliot has lost interest in literature, part of the reason had to be that for someone like himself, who didn’t just want to reinterpret society, but to change it, it was obvious that poetry was the wrong vehicle.

“Of what use is this experimenting with rhythms and words, this effort to find the precise metric and the exact image to set down feelings which, if communicable at all, can be communicated to so few that the result seems insignificant compared to the labour.” (Eliot, ‘Christianity and communism’ Listener, 16 March 932, p.382 qtd Margolis 184)

I think this question should be answered by anyone who wants to pretend poetry is a vehicle for changing the world in the 21st century.

The essential dilemma that Eliot faced is that of an articulate, intelligent individual, who cares passionately and wants to change the world, but whose distinction is the ability to arrange words in patterns on the page. To misquote Bunting’s phrase, in a democracy, poets have no more power than anyone else with the vote, and Eliot as social critic was nothing more (or less) than an intelligent eloquent man with opinions. Those opinions had no more or less value than any other intelligent and eloquent individual’s. When not directly about poetry, those opinions could not be underwritten by his poetry, and his amateur status in the fields of theology, economics and education, would be easily exposed. 

Friday, June 6, 2014

After Strange Gods, Everybody Knows T.S.Eliot was a...

“Everybody knows Eliot was a misogynist, anti-Semitic fascist ….”

That “everybody knows’ is both ubiquitous and invidious. It absolves the speaker, or writer, from the need to scrutinize the evidence, or even to apply his or her own intelligence to the issue.  No matter how distant from any rational consideration of the evidence, it can be endlessly reiterated because it’s something ‘everyone knows’.  It becomes a password into the society of the “Right Thinking”, a not so secret handshake.  And moral outrage, usually where it has no consequence or real time function, is such a popular activity for those who like to feel important.

Use ‘Everybody Knows” and you can congratulate yourself on your own smug moral superiority. You can have the right opinion without doing the hard work of thinking it through for yourself.

This bunker mentality in literary criticism is widely prevalent and I think intellectually indefensible, unless you believe in censorship and thought control. The critic sits in a little bunker spotting the ideological flaws of the poem or poet and shoots it down from a distance. It’s an automatic reflex and no thought is required.  

The real evil in such a methodology, in the 'everybody know'….is that the critic never has to examine his or her own assumptions:  Everybody Knows.

So, yes, Eliot made statements in his writing and his poems that were Anti-Semitic. If you were interested in that issue I’d recommend reading, thinking about, and then rereading Christopher Rick’s T.S.Eliot and Prejudice. Me, I think all forms of racism are abhorrent, I knew people who remembered the signs in England:  “no dogs or Irish”.  

The women in most of Eliot’s poems do not resemble the women I know, and I don’t share his revulsion.  I’m fairly sure I think his politics were repulsive: his idea of a hierarchal well-ordered Christian society with people like himself running it and making rules for the rest of us sounds remarkably like a parody of the Middle Ages at their worst. 

But, if you’re interested in poetry and poems and poets, I think you can go through all that and find a great deal that is thought provoking in what he said about poetry and poets and poems.  

And I’m still not convinced that the politics of a particular poet need necessarily be taken into account when reading the poems. I think it varies from case to case and person to person. I think what you read, and what you find offensive, is a personal call. It’s your responsibility, as a thinking adult, to make up your own mind, he said, addressing an imaginary reader, and it has nothing to do with what ‘everybody’ else thinks, or should think, or thinks you should be thinking.  

I refuse the idea that someone else has the self-appointed right to tell me what or how to think or what or how to read.

Case in point. After Strange Gods. 

It’s a weird performance. God alone knows what the original audience must have thought. And yes, some of the major evidence for Eliot’s Anti-Semitism is found in phrases he made in these lectures. But I wonder how many people have read them?  
Anyway, having just reread them, I still think this is priceless:

Pound’s hell, in the Cantos, Eliot points out, consists of: politicians, profiteers, financiers, newspaper proprietors, and their hired men, agents provocateurs, Calvin, St Clement of Alexandria, the English, vice-crusaders, liars, the stupid, pedants, preachers, those who do not believe in Social Credit, Bishops, lady golfers, Fabians, conservatives and imperialists: and ‘all those who have set money-lust before the pleasures of the senses’. It is, in its way, an admirable Hell, ‘without dignity, without tragedy’.  At first sight the variety of types –for these are types, and not individuals- may be a little confusing; but I think it becomes a little more intelligible if we see at work three principles, (1) the aesthetic, (2) the humanitarian, (3) the Protestant. And I find one considerable objection to a Hell of this sort: that a Hell altogether without dignity implies a Heaven without dignity also. If you do not distinguish between individual responsibility and circumstances in Hell, between essential Evil and social accidents, then the Heaven (if any) will be equally trivial and accidental. (p43)

I’ve quoted this at length, partly because it’s enjoyable, partly because the last sentence seems so worthy of consideration, and because it sets up the next sentence, which is not only a fair criticism of Pound but a fair warning.

‘Mr. Pound’s Hell, for all its horrors, is a perfectly confortable one for the modern mind to contemplate, and disturbing to no one’s complacency: it is a Hell for the other people, the people we read about in the news appears, not for oneself and one’s friends’(p43).

The idea that you can strip literature of all that is disturbing, that we should only read what is ideologically approved, or that we judge it solely on whether or not we are supposed to like its version of the world: whether that version be perceived to be Left wing, Right wing or Chicken Breast, is a simple denial of the power of literature to startle us, by showing what it would be like for us, not “other people”, to step out of the bunker of our own certainties and find ourselves in Hell.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Charles Tomlinson, George Oppen and Richard Swigg: something to celebrate

Recordings of Charles Tomlinson reading his verse and in conversation  are now available online from PennSound in the US at 

For those interested in twentieth century poetry the discussion with Hugh Kenner ('In conversation 1988') is fascinating, if for no other reason than it brings alive a whole range of famous names.

There are also the letters of Tomlinson and Oppen in the online magazine Jacket 2 at

These recordings are the work of Richard Swigg, keeper of the Bunting Tapes, Recorder of Poets,  and a fine critic of the sound of poetry: one day soon I will have the time to reread 'Quick Said the Bird" and give it the attention it deserves. It was his "Charles Tomlinson and the objective Tradition" which put me on to Ruskin.

With Historical Amnesia on the rise, the fact that there are still people like him, curating the past and making it available, is something to celebrate.

Monday, June 2, 2014

T.S. Eliot, a pause

So I've spent the last month or so re reading Eliot's criticism; The Sacred Wood, The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism, After Strange Gods (of which more later), On Poetry and Poets, To Criticize the Critic (ditto).

I've also read criticisms of that criticism, some of it in the critical context of critical histories of criticism in its institutionalized form, which tend to be highly critical and which itself is often criticised for being too critical or not critical enough, or not applying the appropriate critical framework, and I have reached the point where I am no longer sure what the criticism of the criticism is actually criticising.

At which point I can only put on William Byrd's mass for three voices and look at the clouds.